DUNEDIN — The excuse of "the dog ate my homework" won't fly this year at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, at least not in the sixth grade. Those students, mostly 11 years old, were issued iPads on the first day of school. And come January, all their homework will go digital.
"The kids, parents and teachers are excited," said principal Kathy Bogataj. "It is a new generation of children, and this is their life. There is an energy. You just see the kids coming alive. Even some of our more seasoned teachers are embracing it. What we want to do is create lifelong learners."
The addition of iPads is part of a school-wide technology and enrichment initiative. Every middle schooler at Our Lady of Lourdes will have access to one. Five are available for seventh- and eighth-graders to use as a supplement for presentations and collaborative projects. Five are also housed in the science lab. But the one-on-one pilot program is all about sixth-graders.
"When the principal and I wheeled the iPad storage cart into the room, the (sixth-grade) class was completely silent," said Renee Stoeckle, the school's director of marketing and development.
"They were holding onto their seats, like, 'I don't want to do anything wrong,' in case they'd get taken away. I said, 'Guys, you can smile.' The students were thrilled. There was just so much anticipation."
Twenty-four iPads. One for each sixth-grader. A list of serial numbers tracks which student has which tablet.
Many of the kids already play with technology. They use computers for entertainment, but digitally taking tests at school? Not so much. Yet, come January, students will take the iPads home and all homework assignments will be completed digitally.
Teachers will stress personal responsibility. Students will learn to handle an electronic device with a screen larger than a Nintendo DS Lite. They will discover they shouldn't shove a $600 iPad into a book bag that may get plopped onto the sidewalk.
Students do carry insurance policies on their iPads, which are school property. According to Stoeckle, it's like students renting the tablet for the year. Many students already understand how to handle technology because they've used it all their lives.
"We didn't want a disconnect between what students do at home and what they do at school," said Stoeckle. "They live in a digital world outside of school. We hope to integrate those worlds. I expected to walk in and show them where to push the power button. But they were way ahead of the game."
The first week of school, students learned to take digital notes. Each will store notes in color-coded digital folders, like tiny lockers made to stash papers inside. It's more like a game than old-fashioned schoolwork. And the excitement fills up the classroom.
Students aren't the only ones enthusiastic about the technological leap. Teachers will physically carry home a lighter load. No workbooks or papers to lug. Tests and homework will be graded and returned electronically.
Nan Hong, sixth-grade social studies and technology teacher, said that she, other teachers and the students will work together this year to incorporate an increasing amount of iPad functionality into everyday learning.
"I have to say that this was my best first day of school ever," said Hong. "The students were so excited to receive their iPads. Without hesitation, they turned on the iPad and began to explore. As soon as one student discovered something, they turned to students near them and shared."
Parents and students are already offering app suggestions. One student asked to download his own app for Dictionary.com. Learning via technology isn't foreign to this generation. They simply are accustomed to using it at home.
"As a teacher, I'm very excited about the iPad pilot program," said Hong. "This is the technology of the future, a tool for conducting business and reaching out to the global community. This small tablet brings the world into our classroom."
By 2013, the school's goal is to be paperless. That only means every middle school student having his or her own iPad. It doesn't mean the demise of books or the media center, as some people have thought.
"We love books," said Stoeckle. "We would never throw away books. The idea is, equip students with the tools they will need for their future — for what they need when they graduate from college, for the careers of the future, which don't even exist yet."